Going to Plan B
Orthopaedic surgeon Michael Absatz, M.D., found in his work a dream combination of two loves: mechanics and medicine. “Orthopaedics was the ultimate form of engineering—engineering for the human body,” he says. Then his own body failed him.
What does a surgeon do when he can no longer do surgery?
Orthopaedic surgeon Michael Absatz, M.D., found in his work a dream combination of two loves: mechanics and medicine. “Orthopaedics was the ultimate form of engineering—engineering for the human body,” he says. Then his own body failed him. At 42, in the prime of his surgical career at Monmouth Medical Center, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), an autoimmune disease that affects the brain and spinal cord and leads to eventual loss of muscular control.
“I was devastated when I realized I could no longer practice my profession,” he says. But because Monmouth is a teaching institution, he had also been training tomorrow’s orthopaedic surgeons—and he’s been able to continue that. He has also become something of a painter.
“My mother is a professional artist, so as a child I was exposed to paintings and museums,” Dr. Absatz recalls. In medical school he drew anatomical pictures, some of which were published in medical texts. Now he creates medical-themed paintings—one recently appeared in a show called “eMotion Pictures,” which was held to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. (See it online at www.aaos75th.org/gallery/the_artists.htm, along with a work by his mom. Given their medical subject matter, he concedes with a laugh, his paintings “aren’t the sort of thing I can hang in my living room.”)
Still, it wasn’t easy giving up a career he calls his “life’s passion.” A graduate of Johns Hopkins University who majored in biomedical engineering (and was lucky enough to participate in cutting-edge medical research at the Hopkins med school as an 18-year-old freshman), Dr. Absatz went on to his own medical education at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. “When I found orthopaedics I thought, ‘This is perfect!’” he recalls.
He joined Monmouth’s staff a few years later and ultimately performed thousands of hip and knee replacements. Such surgery, he says, is “one of the most profound differences a surgeon can make in people’s lives—it helps them go from a crippling, painful problem to a new life and a new chance.”
His own new life has its limits—unfortunately, MS can’t be cured by a skillful surgeon. Dr. Absatz has had to give up sailing and sailboat racing, but he’s an avid reader who is getting used to his new Kindle. He still goes to the beach with his wife, Lisa, and—when they’re around— his children, Jessica, 22; and Aaron, 18. And as for orthopaedics, though he can no longer operate today, Dr. Absatz still has a significant impact at Monmouth in the roles of educator and consultant.
“I’m happy with the work I’m doing now,” he says. “It’s fun dealing with the younger doctors, helping them understand and learn.” Fittingly, he’ll be honored as a physician leader at the medical center’s annual gala, the Crystal Ball, on December 5.
“In surgery—or in life—you can try to be as prepared as possible, but unexpected things come up,” Dr. Absatz reflects. “When they do, you can’t just get totally bent out of shape. You have to dig in and figure out what to do next. In a way, my work gave me a model for how to deal with my disease.”